While my previous posts deal with ways that we could expand on the traditional approach to paladins by looking at a variety of ethical theories, I want to take that idea a bit further by introducing the Existentialist Paladin, the ultimate Knight of Faith!
Existentialism is more of a loose movement of philosophical concepts than a cohesive theory. Put simply, existentialism, as Jean Paul Sartre explains, is the idea that “Existence precedes Essence”. What that means is that there is no essential nature to human life and our values that we must discover in order to know our true purpose. There is no such universal, absolute purpose. We exist first, and then we are free to create our purpose. While this sounds like unrestricted liberty, it’s not that simple. According to Sartre, truly realizing our existential state leads to despair and forlornness. The complete freedom we gain comes at a price-we have no innate direction. We must do the hard work of creating a life of meaning for ourselves in a universe that does not care about us. Many people are crushed by the weight of this Existential Angst.
Those familiar with Existentialism probably realize that most writers that fit into the view are atheists. Sartre sees the lack of God as a key part of the forlornness felt when we must create the world for ourselves. However, there are religious Existentialists, even Christians, and this is where we could get a template for the Existentialist Paladin.
One of the earliest Existentialists (some might call him a proto-Existentialist) is Soren Kierkegaard. Besides having one of the coolest names in history, Kierkegaard is known for his practically Post-Modern take on the idea of God. Instead of seeing God as the Infinite Realization of Actuality (i.e. as being the essence of everything), Kierkegaard saw God as Infinite Possibility. What does this mean, exactly?
Traditionally, religious philosophers, such as Augustine or Descartes, described God as Infinite Perfection. Everything that exists is part of God and thus part of perfection. There is nothing else. God cannot change, because there is nothing outside of God to change into. God cannot grow for the same reasons. God does not become; he was, is, and always will be. Time and space are meaningless to such a God. Defying God is like defying reality; it is unnatural. Similarly, any desire that things be other than how they are is not only pointless, but immoral and sinful, as it goes against God’s perfect plan.
This approach to God fits the traditional approach to paladins, of course. Defying God’s perfect will is immoral and must be punished. But now let’s look at God as Infinite Possibility. Kierkegaard writes about three types of people. The first are the ‘frogs in life’s swamp’. Most people fit into this category, flailing about in life, pursuing finite pleasures and making do with their lot as best they can. When they pray to God, they ask for things, but they rarely get them because their prayers are very selfish. Imagine if such a person lived in medieval times, Kierkegaard imagines, and he decides that he loves a princess. As a peasant himself, he cannot have the princess, so he makes do with the daughter of a butcher, who is a peasant like himself.
The second level is what Kierkegaard calls the Knight of Infinite Resignation. This is basically a Kantian deontologist, which I explained in the previous post on paladins. It’s also how most paladins are played. The Knight of Infinite Resignation aims at universal values, where all human life is sacred, and moral laws apply to all equally and must never be broken. If such a Knight were to fall in love with the princess, Kierkegaard argues, he would never renounce his love in favor of another, because that would be a lie. Instead, he would recognize that the princess can only marry someone of equal nobility, which the Knight lacks. He will thus infinitely resign himself to never getting the princess. This does not make him any happier; in fact, his is a life of misery. But it is a moral life, lived in full truth and self-awareness. We can relate to the Knight as a tragic figure, understanding that his aesthetic choices are based on universal truths. That’s our basic paladin-he might annoy those of us in his party, but we understand his views, and he is extremely, irritatingly, consistent.
The third level is where we find the Existential Paladin, or what Kierkegaard calls the Knight of Faith. Remember that the faith here is faith in a God of Infinite Possibility. The Knight of Faith, according to Kierkegaard’s explanation also falls in love with the princess. Unlike the Frogs in the Swamp, this knight does NOT give up his love for her; however, he also acknowledges that realizing this love is impossible, just like the Knight of Infinite Resignation. Here’s the important move. Through his faith and the “Strength of the Absurd”, the Knight of Faith actually changes the world so that he can marry the princess. This isn’t delusion or even some recognition that the rules were just a social construct. The Knight of Faith is capable of achieving the impossible through God.
Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate what he means. In this Biblical tale, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the traditional view of God as unchanging and perfect, this effectively means that Isaac will die. Abraham has no reason to believe that Isaac will not die. If he does, then the story is less interesting to Kierkegaard. Abraham must know, with certainty, that Isaac is now doomed. However, at the same time, his faith in God’s promise that Isaac would be the fulfilment of God’s covenant means that somehow, impossibly, Isaac will live. Both these things must be true to Abraham, which means that he must embrace the absurd. Isaac cannot both die and remain alive, and yet Abraham’s faith must believe this anyway in order for him to be a Knight of Faith. He does, and God spares Isaac at the last moment by offering an alternate sacrifice. This story is usually seen as a simple test of faith, but Kierkegaard takes it much further by seeing it as the ultimate sign that God can do the impossible.
I think this fits with the idea of paladins very well, at first glance. They are able to use healing spells, and if powerful enough, the magic of the gods in D&D can even bring back the dead. Paladins absolutely do the impossible. Of course, so do wizards and sorcerers and clerics, and even bards…. Still, in this case the paladin would be freed up from the traditional role of following a god’s orders and instead be partners with her god. She could engage in her faith in a uniquely existentialist way.
Consider how another Christian Existentialist, Paul Tillich, explains faith as ‘ultimate concern’: “[T]he ecstatic character of faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes nonrational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.” The Existentialist Paladin transcends both the rational and irrational, the moral and the immoral, and becomes a law unto herself. Her faith lifts her above the rest of us, making her impossible to understand, though in her own mind, she never loses her faith, which allows an “affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness”. This is not relativism; it does not mean anything goes. Instead, such a paladin forges a path for others to follow, based on her own existential will and a god that enables her to achieve it.
The Existentialist Paladin would be incredibly fun to play because the other characters would no longer find her predictable at all. At the same time, she is not chaotic. She is lawful, but she is the creator of law, and can transcend any law through the Strength of the Absurd, not by ignoring law, but by overcoming it through faith. It would take a special player character to roleplay this properly and resist the urge to abuse it. It would also require an exceptional DM to recognize what is happening and react accordingly. Still, I’d like to try to play such a character at some point.